Here be Dragons: Belarisian Library and Museum

By NikitaNemygin, June 10, 2015

An unlikely venue
– Hey, what are you writing about now? – I was asked every once in a while some time ago.
– I am doing a review of Belarusian Library in London! – I would answer with a joy of excitement; – it is in fact the largest one outside their country! And did you know Belarus has a 5000-strong community in the UK? And in Woodside Park they…
At this point people would stop trying to believe and politely pull out of the conversation and move on to the recent tabloid headlines that baffled the nation, like this one:
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So yes, guys, I was not making this up, there is a Belarusian Library in London, and we are going in!

It was a sunny Sunday morning when I found myself standing in North Finchley in front of the door that read “Belarusian Library”. As I was waiting for the reply at the door, I asked myself, what is it that makes some establishments thrive and others fail? Why do people come to certain places and not to others? How could a Belarusian library thrive in London, let alone to be the largest one outside Belarus?

Library Entrance

Library Entrance

I first encountered a Belarusian viewpoint that was different from the offical Minsk at the Globe to Globe Festival in 2012 at Shakespeare’s Globe where 37 of the Bard’s plays were presented in 37 different languages and of course I had to see them all. Belarus was represented by the “Belarusian Free Theatre”, a company based in London, in exile from their own country for political reasons. They came up with its version of King Lear and it was a fascinating show with some innovative ideas.
Library, I knew, was not directly connected to the theatre. I was about to be greeted by Ihar Ivanou, a local librarian, who has kindly agreed to spend some time with me and convey the history of the this venue. What he said inspired and moved me.

Catholic-backed start
Marian House, a building opposite the current Library, hosts a Belarusian Catholic community of the Eastern tradition (Uniates) established soon after the World War II. This elegant building was once owned by a Lithuanian Catholic community, one of the numerous Catholic Missions in London in the war aftermath.

Marian House

Marian House

The Belarusians were abundant in London for a short period after the World War II, but soon most of them moved on to Canada, the US and Australia in a search for a better life. Those who remained acquired more properties nearby and started calling the area on the crossroads of Holden Road and Holden Avenue the Belarusian village.

Ceslaus Sepovich - photo from the collection of Belarusian Library and Museum

Ceslaus Sepovich – photo from the collection of Belarusian Library and Museum

It started out with a religious parish – but did not end there.
The émigrés wanted to create a Belarus of their own – free of oppressive state, on this side of the Iron curtain. One of them, Ceslaus Sipovich, who later became the first Belarusian Catholic Bishop in the diaspora, took a particularly effort in collecting artefacts and books about this lost Belarus. As other priests and intellectuals of the time joined forces with him, the library took shape, and later – the museum.

They chose to name the establishment after Francis Skaryna – the first Belarusian-born book-printer and humanist from the 16th century. He put his mother tongue in the printed books by adding introductions and commentaries in Belarusian to the biblical and liturgical texts in Church Slavonic language. First book he printed in Prague in 1517. Soon after, all Grand Duchy of Lithuania part of which Belarus was then was using this language for literary and legal texts, and state correspondence.
Perhaps, the founders felt that their destiny reflect that of Skaryna – as him, they have spent much of their lives abroad, as him, were fascinated by books and humanism, as him, were ahead of their time in their motherland.

One of Library rooms

One of Library rooms

Due to the limited possibilities of travelling to the USSR, over the decades the library attracted about 1,000 scholars, by Ihar’s estimates.

Workplace for Library Users

Workplace for Library Users

The researchers could come to the library and get lodged in one of the houses in possession of the Belarusian community.

You would never suspect what great fun these houses on Holden Road contain

You would never suspect what great fun these houses on Holden Road contain

The changing landscape
The times have changed since the Iron Curtain was no more. It is different now as virtually anybody can go to Belarus and research in their archives. Thus the library as well has to change, and indeed it does.
As we go touring around several library and museum rooms, Ihar tells that today the library wants to be inclusive and concentrate on something beyond current affairs and official Minsk. So, instead of collecting widely circulated newspapers, it gets itself publications dealing with the diversity (sexual, religious or national), it gets modern Belarus literature translations and continues to evolve as a historic reference archive.
The museum, though not very big, contains some telling things about Belarus, such as costumes, embroidery and tapestry. You can visit it by appointment. It also exhibits a model of a future Belarusian Chapel to be built across the road – the first wooden church to be built in London since the great fire of 1666.

Part of museum room and future Chapel model

Part of museum room and future Chapel model

A cross is erected on the site of the future Chapel

A cross is erected on the site of the future Chapel

As we go across the road to see the place where the community currently congregates for religious worship and social activities, Ihar goes on to explain that people do not have to be religious to be accepted here. There is a book swap and people gather for things like watching football and cultural feasts.

Wall decorations in Marian House

Wall decorations in Marian House

Even though the library exhibits “Pahonia” coat of arms and red-and-white striped flag on its premises (this flag is usually associated with people against current Belarusian regime), it eludes any political position. This establishment welcomes everyone who is interested in Belarus not as an obscure part of Poland, or Lithuania, or Russia, but as a free nation, with its narrative, its local issues, language and works of art.

Library main hall

Library main hall

The Belarusian Orthodox parish in London doesn’t exist anymore as they were not successful in engaging with the youth. Ihar also feels that the Embassy is sluggish in respect to the needs of the community. They care mostly about money and organising businesses, so this might be something they are good at. However on culture side, they are not much active. Thus the library thrives, and so does the Free Belarus Theatre which attracts a crowd more interested in spoken word, rather than literary. They are successful as a community, because they keep up with the time and the outside life.

Quo vadis?
Seeing this, I realised that our needs as social species will always stay the same – we all need belonging and acceptance and safety of something to call “home” and “us”. The most personal within us is the most universal. However the exact application of those needs evolve over time and political situation.
People are attracted not to media, it seems, but to the way of thinking, therefore it is the same survival of the fittest, the one who can adapt quickly and feel where the wind is blowing.
Our establishments and social gatherings can choose to evolve with us – or be left behind.